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The Living Dead Review

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by Chris McEneany Nov 2, 2009

    The Living Dead Review

    Despite its impressive roster of sixteen alternative titles, Jorge Grau's awesome zombie flick is presented here on region-free Blu-ray disc, by Blue Underground, as The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue, even dropping the The before Manchester that has been common on some releases before now. Please note, however, that the film, itself, seems to follow the original British print, maintaining the more psychedelic title imagery of portentous strobe and superimposed zombie face that wasn't shown on the previous R2 edition.

    The rotting ball of dead flesh may have started rolling with George Romero's seminal Night Of The Living Dead in 1968, but I would argue that a far superior (in almost every way) zombie film ripped and gouged its way into notoriety six years later when Spaniard Jorge Grau crafted what is, for my money, one of the best productions that the long-standing genre has to offer. Approaching the subject matter as a horror film and not as a social allegory, he delivers mystery, chills, suspense and gore in a narrative that does, indeed, have a point but doesn't allow it to get in the way of spinning an exciting and horrific yarn. A Spanish/Italian co-production shot almost entirely on-location in the lush green hills of the Peak District (which is standing-in for the Lakes where the story is supposed to take place) and in and around Manchester, the film features a typically multi-national cast and some disjointed dubbing, but it is remarkably assured, gathers a fine momentum and actually ordains to tell a story and not just pitch a hapless group of stock characters against the hordes of the undead for the sheer sake of it. Plus it has a marvellously constructed sense of increasing dread and set-pieces that are all the more harrowing because they are taken seriously by all concerned.

    With a curious adherence to regional dialects, Grau even has his cast, those who aren't looping their own voices, that is, dubbed with rich and authentic Northern accents just to maintain the natural environment in which the events occur, which is a rare and praise-worthy contribution to have made in what was little more than a cheap horror excursion.

    Almost as infamous as its black and white progenitor, The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue has seen life (and un-death), as I mentioned earlier, under a huge variety of often ridiculous aliases, but it is best-known (and reviled in some quarters) by this highly original sobriquet. Once brandished by the tabloids and the authorities as a loathsome video nasty - which is how I first encountered it, after having read some great reviews of it in old horror-film compendiums and rejoicing in its uncut form from the old VIP label - Grau's actually very accomplished production is certainly not without its morally troubling aspects. Its depiction of an openly volatile and fascist police force is its most notorious claim to infamy, though what tends to get forgotten about is the amazing heroism that one admittedly foolish copper - who looks just like Benecio Del Toro - performs during a desperate escape attempt from a zombie-surrounded church which, as he even admits to our cynical heroes, may allow our them to perhaps “think better of the police if I can pull this off.”

    The story, written by Sandro Continenza and Marcello Coscia, that leads up to this fantastical fascist stand-off is a lot more sophisticated than you think. When Edna Simon (Christine Galbo) backs into and damages the motorcycle of young Manchester art dealer, George (Ray Lovelock), on the forecourt of a countryside garage, the two are flung together by this unwanted circumstance and, since they are heading in roughly the same direction, take Edna's car and wind-up embroiled in a terrifying struggle with both the reanimated corpses of the recently deceased and the local constabulary who, erroneously, believe the mismatched couple to be responsible for a ghastly murder on their patch. Poor George really should have taken the train but, with Edna's heroin-addicted sister, Katie (Jeannine Mestre), lapsing into shock and withdrawal symptoms after the terrible killing of her husband Martin (the cruel-looking Jose Ruiz Lifante) and the cops insisting that he and Edna stay in the village pending further investigation, it does not look like he'll be getting to that cottage to meet his friends any time soon. And with an attack on Edna by the local vagrant, Guthrie - who just happened to have drowned himself in the river a few days before - the stay at the Old Owl Inn appears as though it is going to be quite eventful. Murders, random dead people ambling about, a jumped-up Hitler breathing down their necks, and the newborn infants in the nearby Southgate Hospital, where Katie is being sectioned, suddenly exhibiting violent tendencies ... it's high time for George to do some investigating of his own.

    So, just what is that experimental pest-killing machine out on the farm really doing?

    The English-sounding, but Italian-born Ray Lovelock takes on the genre-trendy role at that time of hippie-hero of the piece. Openly arrogant and antagonistic at first, we get to know and understand his dilemmas and impatience and come to sympathise wholeheartedly with him once the situation worsens considerably despite his best efforts to avert disaster. Grau's eco-message is personified by the socially aware art dealer who likes to spend his weekends up in the rarefied air of the Lakes, and the director's own suppressed fears of fascism and authority are allowed to be vented full-steam by George, who impulsively acts out of a staunchly cynical relationship with the human pollution he sees around him and the capitalist lunacy that he believes lies behind it all. But it is the fact that George is not at all the conventional good guy that makes him so memorable. Already something of a rebel - he even reminds me a little bit of Ewan McGregor getting stuck at Eastern European checkpoints on his epic jaunt “Long Way Round” with Charley Boorman, as he bombs about on his meaty Norton motorcycle, with his blonde hair billowing and his hip beard - his gradual unearthing of the cause of the plague, much to the chagrin of those around him, is strangely very credible. I mean, out of everybody involved, he would be the one to ask the difficult questions and make the right connections. Everyone else is blinkered and conformist. Thus, when George begins to act heroic and attempts to take charge of the situation, he is infinitely more believable than many others in such films. After a charismatic debut in 1967 in Guilio Questi's great Spaghetti Western, Django Kill, opposite Tomas Milian, Lovelock became something of a staple in exploitation pictures from horror to violent thrillers, though he did get a shot at a big Hollywood blockbuster in 1976 alongside Burt Lancaster, Sophia Loren and Richard Harris in George P. Cosmatos' The Cassandra Crossing. Whilst latter years have seen him claimed by television, Manchester Morgue stunningly shows that he could, when given the chance, carry a film on his shoulders very capably.

    “It was the corpses, don't you understand? The corpses!

    Christine Galbo is, unfortunately, saddled with a role that calls for her to be whimpering, scared, frantic, delirious and catatonic (though not necessarily all at once), but she handles these now-hackneyed traits with some considerable gusto. And in the more usual Italian style, she is made to perform some quite physical deeds of escape and evasion. Having already appeared in Dallamano's 1971 shocker What Have You Done To Solange?, Galbo was no stranger to being harassed and put upon by both nefarious fellow characters and egotistical and driven directors. Her long red hair also seems to complement the verdant green of the locale, even lending the film something of a fairytale quality in some of the more picturesque sequences. A scene of her sitting injured and traumatised in a petrol station totally reinforces the seriousness of it all, no matter how absurd the events may seem.

    “Sergeant - there are dead people ... trying to kill me!

    The once super-hot property who starred in Peyton Place, Rancho Notorious (for Fritz Lang) and Lawrence of Arabia, and, even further back, one of my all-time favourites, They Died With Their Boots On, as the greedy entrepreneur Ned Sharp, Arthur Kennedy was past his prime, by a long, long way, when he took the part of the fascistic policeman hell-bent on rooting out depravity, debauchery and all manner of drink, drugs and sex-fuelled behaviour and stamping down upon them with his jackboot. As the colossally unreasonable Sgt. McCormick, he is terrifyingly brilliant - a single-minded bigot with ultra right-wing leanings and complete zero-tolerance for anybody under the age of forty who is not wearing a uniform. His hard-line tactics are, possibly, the most frightening aspects of the film and, gore aside, it is precisely this accusatory and wholly incendiary element that saw copies of The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue confiscated by the real police, hailed as an obscenity and eventually ending up on the DPP banned list. Quite where Grau got his impression of rural law enforcement from is open for debate, but Kennedy clearly gives it his all, his own alcoholism and inner-demons lending an authentically belligerent edge to the character. That his god-fearing and puritanical approach actually seems to make him popular with his own men only adds to his Matthew Hopkins-like zeal for squashing “outsiders”. In America, they had Sheriff Will Teasle and his closed-minded outlook, but McCormick is the figurehead of a far more dangerous ideology and, once more, this is something that you just don't expect to encounter in a sleazy, blood-soaked zombie-flick.

    “Ahhh, Craig ... if only you'd had time to call us on the radio ...”

    Grau is exceptional in his handling of the horrors that ensue once he has unleashed his zombies. The lore that would become deep-rooted in the genre of the undead not being frightening or even that much of a threat on their own does not apply to his cadavers, that's for sure. They may not run like those in Snyder's Dawn Of The Dead reboot, or be as utterly repulsive as those of Lucio Fulci, but they have the poise, the wretched condition, and the most extremely nasty intentions that you could wish for. Guthrie The Loon holds the dubious honour of being the only member of the living dead who has ever given me nightmares. The first time we see him - we hear his tortured, wheezing and groaning long before he lumbers into view - is a majestic moment of undiluted suspense and utter dread. Although the galvanising impetus for his appearance is inarguably derived from Romero's first zombie picking his way through the tombstones to attack Barbara in Night Of The Living Dead, this sequence, also shot in broad daylight but at a simply gorgeous and picturesque river crossing between two steep-sided hills, is infinitely scarier. Grau has Fernando Hilbeck's waterlogged Guthrie shamble ungainly into the shot after Edna who, feeling alone and uneasy without George, takes a glance over her shoulder at an eerily empty frame. The second glance, accompanied by the intensified electronic throbbing of the score and the revolting wheezing of dead breath, has Guthrie, front and centre, and on the prowl. His bizarre gait and sickly demented expression is immediately wrong, but as he spies fresh meat, it is the lurching speed with which he comes after her, closing the gap exactly as Grau had instructed his leading zombie to do - driven by a primal impulse in his dead brain, his limbs struggling to keep up with him as he clutches and gropes his way towards the car that Edna has locked herself in. Only David Emge, as Flyboy Steve in Romero's Dawn Of The Dead, has managed to come up with as convincing a portrayal of dead flesh struggling to animate itself. Old Guthrie is seemingly even able to rise up from the ground as though pulled on magical strings - which is precisely how the effect was probably achieved - during the heart-lurching grapple down in the crypt later on.

    “I wish the dead could come back to life, you bastard ... so then I could kill you again!”

    These zombies, particularly old Guthrie, have genuine purpose and character. They don't just shamble about and hope that something tasty comes within chomping distance. Clearly acting as a unit, the first troop following on from Guthrie's lead, the second under the command of the equally frightening Martin, they mount coordinated attacks and are quick to use tools and implements with which to batter down doors and weaken their victims. Some unspoken communication is surely at work. Both mobs go about their business with little fuss, but a maximum of carnage. They don't just regard passers-by as meat-on-the-fly either, certain members of the resurrection-clan specifically target individuals and pursue them, with clearly delineated goals. Guthrie even shows disdain and frustration at George and Edna as they continually thwart his attacks during the gut-wrenching confrontation down in the crypt. These are not the oblivious, instinct-driven cadavers that would come to dominate the genre afterwards. They even consciously hide from possible dangers ... and appear to take things personally. Although Romero, ultimately, had much grander ideas about his living dead evolving, Grau's are endowed with much more immediate intimidation.

    And you can't have a good “modern” zombie film without some explicit mayhem and mutilation, can you?

    This was 1974 and on-camera ferocity and cannibalism weren't exactly commonplace on cinema screens. Romero had pointed the way forward with his unflinching documentary style, but the ghoulish cook-out that that saw pasty-faced corpses chowing down on the unfortunate young lovers wasn't exactly cutting-edge in terms of makeup effects. Flash-forward to Grau's day and suddenly, with the raw and exceedingly visceral talent of the celebrated purveyor of outlandish gore, Giannetto De Rossi, we could see mounds of sticky, stretchy flesh being torn away, blood spurting from painstakingly fabricated veins and arteries, intestines being plucked-out of gaping cavities and unspooled before our very eyes. Rossi would go on to even more extreme blood-letting for Lucio Fulci, with the likes of Zombie Flesheaters, The Beyond, The House By The Cemetery and The New York Ripper (BD review soon, I promise!) still proving to be milestones for special effects that take a strong stomach to endure. Manchester Morgue may be a trifle reserved when compared to what he came up with in its wake, but this is certainly ground-breaking in terms of graphic violence and mutilation. The disemboweling and the eyeball-eating (contrary to many opinions, there never was a shot showing an eye actually being plucked-out), the impromptu mastectomy of the irritating hospital telephonist, a severed hand anchored onto the window of a police landrover, its owner having presumably hung on for dear life until the last possible second, and the vicious axe blow to the side of a doctor's noggin, as well as sundry other woundings, shootings, cremations and rippings, are all delightfully gruesome and furnished by some of the most convincingly dark red blood that the decade was able to deliver. Even Tom Savini couldn't get this bit right in the Don of all zombie movies, Dawn Of The Dead. But another jolting aspect of his makeup design was the inclusion of the spectacularly bizarre red contact lenses that the dead wear, giving them almost alien eyes.

    “Sergeant ... have you ever come across any of these ... Satanists?”

    Aiding De Rossi and Grau is the excellent cinematography of Francisco Sempere that glides with a hideous intimacy at times, and catches the unique setting with partial admiration, partial apprehension, at others. The camera pacing behind Galbo as she first encounters Guthrie - the hills ahead of her actually seeming to stretch out to encompass her - the eerie, flash-bulb ignited murder of Martin beside a gorgeous moonlit waterfall, the spellbinding shots of hungry cadavers suddenly lurching into the frame behind unsuspecting victims and, let's not forget, the crafty montage of a fume-filled rush-hour Manchester, the commuters and the cab-drivers grid-locked in their trance-like ignorance of the blobby female streaker running across the road (one of Grau's little in-jokes about the zombified indifference that the rat-race has created - and, remember, this is long before Romero used mindless shopping sprees as a template for his window-gawping deadsters in Dawn). Yet such social observation is just another flavour to be savoured in a film that wants to have its cake and eat it ... and, amazingly, does indeed get to scoff most of it down, too.

    “The dead don't walk around ... except in very bad paperback novels. They're dead, and that's that!”

    Where Grau comes vaguely unstuck is in his presentation of Guthrie reawakening other recently deceased corpses. On the one hand, we have a scientific explanation for the dead rising again, which definitely makes sense in the universe that he has set up. But, on the other, he then delves into the supernatural and the occult with a ritualistic blood transference arousing dormant cohorts. Personally speaking, I enjoy both elements. Where Romero was content to hint at a returning space probe tainting the atmosphere, we all knew that he was merely using the undead as a ravenous metaphor for vast social ills and political upheaval. Grau found an ecological solution that, in the nightmarish scheme of things, seemed plausible, and you could say that his almost voodoo-inspired blood trickery was simply a way of stating that once you've tampered with nature and destroyed the fundamental laws of mortality, then all bets are off and anything can happen. There are plot holes and illogicalities - the police ambush which condones the use of one of their own dead men as part of the trap is a touch over-the-top, even with Mad McCormick in charge, and the wilful disregard for proper procedure when questioning witnesses is mind-boggling in the extreme - but nothing that undermines the itching unease of the story and the inspired set-piece flair that Grau exhibits.

    “Nobody believes in ghosts these days ... not even the police.”

    Guiliano Sorgini was the man responsible for creating the wonderfully weird and progressive soundtrack. Not only did he compose the eerie and disturbing score, ambient electronica and a Gothic church organ, he also concocted the unearthly moaning and groaning sounds that frequently punctuate the desolation of the Peak District whenever the undead are at large. Grau, himself, contributed to this ghastly vocalisation by breathing and growling into a microphone and Sorgini then distorting and manipulating the resulting sounds through a synthesiser. The film is reputed to have been the first horror movie to have had a Dolby Stereo mix, and this could well be true. Certainly I have not encountered a genre film pre-dating this one that has a more effective nor more profound audio design. Sorgini's main title cue is a terrifically catchy piece entitled John Dalton Street that plays as George flees the grime and smog of the city, and returns later in altered-tempo variations. Exquisitely on the cusp of sixties rhythm and laid-back seventies sleaze, the track is eminently hummable and toe-tapping. But, score-wise, Sorgini's most atmospheric moment comes after George and Edna have witnessed and survived the full ferocity and threat of the living dead in the rural graveyard and now sit in the false belief that their worries are over. Entitled Mysterious Country on the soundtrack album, and actually heard a couple of times in the film though far more poignantly here, this is one of those tranquil-yet-ominous melodies, strings and recorder-led, that haunts you for long afterwards.

    “I don't approve of your methods, Sgt.”

    “And I don't approve of yours!

    Well-written and excellently directed, The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue is a lurid, though visually very appealing horror film classic, whichever title you view it under. Genuinely unnerving and controversial, it also marks a bold and experimental step in film-making with its audacious location work and avant-garde sound design. Without a doubt, it was Grau's full-throttle approach that set the carnage-clock ticking in Lucio Fulci's mind when he embarked on his grungy quartet of Zombie Flesheaters, The Beyond, The House By The Cemetery and City Of The Living Dead, more so than Romero's more flamboyant and comic-book approach. Plus, with Manchester Morgue's idea of unwitting science creating the plague, you have the seeds for 28 Days Later and its sequel. But it is how Grau, who only actually ventured into the horror genre a couple of times despite being remarkably impressive on both occasions, never forgot that the film should be scary and not just a cavalcade of gore, or a dressed-up ecological warning that makes it the near-classic that it remains today.

    Grisly, gripping and guaranteed to entertain, The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue is one of the foundation stones of the cinematic zombie genre that still rampages across the screen today. And, as such, it comes richly recommended for jaded gore-hounds who would like to see the evolutionary step that took Romero's undead out of the Night and into the Dawn.